WASHINGTON – With recent well-attended immigration rallies showing the power of the people, a debate has been sparked over why more Americans aren't taking their wariness of the Iraq war to the streets.
Numerous events across the globe marked the third anniversary of the Iraq war on March 20. But nowhere in the United States did the numbers of protesters surpass 10,000, according to news reports. That's a far cry from the immigration rallies earlier this month that were said to have attracted 350,000 protesters in Washington, 500,000 in Dallas and 100,000 in Phoenix, plus tens of thousands in many other cities.
Even those who oppose the war say that without more of a sustained demonstration against action in Iraq, the anti-war movement will remain in the shadows.
“It’s all about numbers and consistent showing,” said Rev. Byron Williams, syndicated columnist and pastor at the Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, Calif., who opposes the war in Iraq.
“Politicians respond to two things — they either respond to campaign contributions from special interests or they respond to large numbers of people, because people translate into potential voters,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a rally in San Francisco, but it’s another if you see them across the country, in red states and blue states, that could, in effect, change lawmakers' minds.”
Anti-war protest organizers say plenty of action has taken place on the grassroots level to keep opposition to the war in focus and pressure on members of Congress. And while anti-war groups aren’t necessarily marching, their opposition is penetrating public opinion.
Voters and elected councils in a number of cities and towns across the country have passed resolutions calling for the withdrawal of U.S troops in Iraq. On April 4, for example, 24 out of 32 communities in Wisconsin passed an advisory referendum in municipal elections calling for immediate or gradual troop withdrawal.
Protesters are also hoping to draw thousands to the "March for Peace, Justice and Democracy" in New York City this Saturday.
“(The movement) is localized. It's not the kind of thing you are going to see on the news everyday, but periodically we do come together in large numbers," said Leslie Cagan, co-chair of the United for Peace and Justice, which has organized anti-war protests in New York, Washington, D.C., and at the national party conventions in 2004.
She said last September's rally in the nation's capital drew an estimated 100,000 people — no small shakes. For the recent anniversary, Cagan added, 700 anti-war activities were planned across the country.
"The mobilization is going well. On any given day, there is so much going on it is hard to quantify," Cagan said.
"I will say that I think the movement is as healthy as it has ever been, but it is not receiving adequate media coverage," said Connecticut activist Ken Krayeske, lamenting that the protests themselves haven't made a larger impact. "Lots of local people are working in small ways."
Dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has been increasing in numerous opinion polls over the past several months. According to a March USA Today/Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans view the war in Iraq as a mistake, and 54 percent said they want troops to come home immediately or within a year.
A FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll released last week showed that 57 percent of people disapproved of the job President Bush is doing. Of them, nearly half, or 48 percent, said their dissatisfaction is due to progress in the war in Iraq. In a separate question, 47 percent of the 900 registered voters polled said they also disapprove of the job Donald Rumsfeld is doing as defense secretary.
Still, outward signs of demonstration against the war in Iraq have not matched the numbers of demonstrators who came together in scores of American cities over the current immigration debate in Congress. Anti-war activists note that the protests certainly haven't lived up to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.
"That is the challenge we know we have," said Michael McPherson, a Persian Gulf War veteran and executive director of Veterans for Peace, an organization of American veterans and families. "We have to translate peoples' dissatisfaction into action."
But several observers say the failure of the anti-war movement to post large numbers of demonstrations could be attributable to today's technology and other avenues being exploited to show dissatisfaction with the war. On top of it, they say, people aren't stepping out because unlike Vietnam, today's military is an all-volunteer force.
"That has a lot to do with it," said Richard Semiatin, a professor of government at American University, adding that he hasn't observed “a lot going on” at his Washington, D.C., campus. "[College students] are removed from it. None of their college classmates are going to get drafted."
"If more people were sharing the burden, I think you would see more people taking it to the streets," Williams said, noting that the size of the military effort and the casualties coming out of it are considerably smaller than during Vietnam.
Williams added that while polls reflect dissatisfaction with the war, they don't catch the nuances of disagreement with the war policy, which may explain, in part, why not everyone is willing to join street protests.
Opposition to the war springs from the fact that some Americans are pacifists, others are just anti-Bush and still more are unhappy with the way the war is being conducted and not with the war itself. A disconnect also appears among those who support actions in Afghanistan and the War on Terror but who don't back Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"They are all opposed to the war for different reasons, so it becomes hard to coalesce around one message," Williams said.
Rick Weidman, a Vietnam Veteran and director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, said Americans also don't want their anti-war stances to be seen as denigrating U.S. troops.
"They don't want that to happen all over again," he said, referring to the Vietnam War protests, which often neglected to separate anger with the war policy from the soldiers fighting the war.
Weidman also suggested that an American culture of "gratuitous violence" — in television, movies and video games — may have dulled the senses against the images Americans see in the news from overseas.
"The ability to shock the sensibilities of American people has been deadened," and it is harder to stir outrage, he said.
Anti-war protests may have lost some of their sting, say others, because like the anti-globalization protests of recent years, radical elements representing myriad far-left causes that don't appeal to "mainstream" Americans seem to have hijacked many of the demonstrations.
One of the major organizers, ANSWER, which stands for "Act Now to Stop War & End Racism," has links to the socialist Workers World Party, which has expressed support for the Communist governments in China and Cuba. ANSWER's major public supporters include former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, now a defense attorney for deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"They're crazy," Rocco DiPippo, a conservative columnist who edits The Autonomist Web blog, said of today's protesters. "Decent people look at that and they say they don't want to be a part of it."
But anti-war protesters counter that DiPippo's argument is a common attack by the right wing to marginalize the anti-war cause.
"I think most people see through that and see that as a desperate attempt to silence people, to make people believe their voices won't matter," said Cagan. "There's nothing un-American about it, or not supporting our troops, or anything like that."
McPherson said efforts to reach out to a broad cross-section of the populace have been bolstered by the growing number of veterans and military families who oppose the war.
"The veterans' organizations, the military family organizations, have been able to open that door," he said of efforts to turn opinion, though it's "discouraging" that more people aren't getting involved.
"I think that speaks not just to the war but to the political process, in general," he said. "We have a problem with people being engaged in democracy and self-rule."
Cagan and Krayeske say some of the blame for a weak-looking opposition lies with the major media, which they argue downplay the strength of the movement and its ideas, creating an image that a tiny minority of fringe radicals oppose the war in Iraq.
"Is the movement doing a good job harnessing the fact that more than 60 percent of the country thinks the war is going poorly? No. Why? Because the good, smart people against the war can't get covered," said Krayeske.
But Williams said the media are a convenient scapegoat when the truth is that the movement, so far, doesn't warrant a lot of national attention.
“Where is the sustained effort? In Vietnam, you reached a point where you didn’t just have young college students, but parents protesting — where is that movement?” he said. “It’s not news if it’s not sustained.”